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Newsom Establishes Long-Term Safe And Affordable Drinking Water Fund

Kerry Klein
Valley Public Radio
State Senator Bill Monning, right, holds up a signed copy of Senate Bill 200. He and Governor Gavin Newsom sit alongside environmental justice advocates Veronica Garibay, second from left, and Dolores Huerta.

Governor Gavin signed a historic water bill into law on Wednesday morning, and he chose to sign it in a rural community outside Fresno.

Newsom was joined by local residents, environmental advocates, and legislators as he signed Senate Bill 200, which creates a long-term fund to support the more than 300 California communities that lack safe drinking water. “The idea that we’re living in a state with a million people that don’t have access to clean, safe, affordable drinking water is a disgrace,” Newsom said during the event.

The recent state budget already funded The Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund for one year, and SB 200 guarantees $130 million annually for a decade. Funds will be awarded in the form of grants to communities seeking to drill new drinking water wells or install water treatment systems, but also provides assistance to those communities who have fallen through gaps in other public funding sources—including those who’ve installed these systems, but due to small population sizes and low income levels, struggle to afford their ongoing maintenance and operations. Common water system pollutants include nitrate, arsenic, and a carcinogenic compound known as 1,2,3-TCP.

Cheers rang out when Newsom signed the bill, and chants of “si se puede” (“yes we can” in English) changed to “si se pudo” (“yes we could”). “Nothing in the budget makes me more proud than this. I’m dead serious about that,” Newsom said. “Some people wonder why the hell you get into politics. This is the why.”

Newsom chose to sign the legislation in Tombstone, an unincorporated community reliant on private water wells near the agricultural city of Sanger. In a round-table during the event, residents described brown, sandy water coming out of their taps, and wells that ran dry during the drought. “I’m happy happy happy,” said long-time resident Jovita Torres Romo in Spanish of the governor’s visit and the passage of the law. “This is a great achievement for my community, because now we can have clean water.”

“It’s a huge victory. It finally feels real,” said Phoebe Seaton, the co-founder of the non-profit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, which had been advocating for the fund for years. “It finally feels like the million people we keep mentioning without safe drinking water in California have a solution on the way.”

Seaton, Torres Romo and Newsom were joined at the event by legislators, including State Senator Bill Monning, who authored the bill, representatives of the Visalia-based advocacy group Community Water Center, and Kern County farm labor activist Dolores Huerta.

Huerta said she’s excited for the law, even though it omitted a water tax and agricultural fees which, in an earlier version of the bill, had been backed by many agricultural coalitions. “I think it was really commendable that the agricultural industry was willing to take responsibility and were willing to really contribute to the cleaning of the water,” she says.

The fund pulls from the state’s cap and trade program and is guaranteed until 2030.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.